MMIW billboard creator talks with Montana Tech students about ongoing crisis, creative process

Jen Murphy speaks to students

It only takes one person’s art to ignite a movement. Indigenous artist Jen Murphy joined Montana Tech writing instructor Stacey Corbitt’s technical writing classes in the first week of April to showcase how her work featuring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) grew from a small project to a statewide billboard campaign.

Murphy owns Tveraa Photography, and anyone who has driven across the state of Montana lately has likely seen her work. She is the creator of haunting billboards featuring Native American women with red handprints across their faces, with messages highlighting the fact that since 2016, more than 6,000 indigenous women have gone missing from reservations in the United States.

Murphy’s campaign began after she volunteered to assist in a search for Jermain Charlo, an indigenous woman who went missing on June 16, 2018. Charlo was last seen in downtown Missoula.

Murphy, an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribes, was moved by the experience to do something to raise awareness about the issue. The self-taught photographer set up two photoshoots to start her project. At the first photo shoot, only three people showed up to have their photos taken. Murphy was discouraged. When the second shoot rolled around, freezing rain was falling from the sky. For the first hour, no one came.

“Part of me wondered, ‘How long do we wait here?’” Murphy said. “And the other part said, ‘As long as it takes.’”

At last, one person showed up, and then another, and then another.

“They kept coming and coming,” Murphy said.

It was an emotional experience.

“I think I cried more that day than I did in a long time,” Murphy said.

Once the photos were created, Murphy, a former probation officer, who now serves as a hospice chaplain, had to take a stab at something new—marketing. She searched billboard options, and became connected with Lamar Advertising.

The project has grown over the past half-decade to include numerous billboards across Montana, made possible by donations.

Mining engineering freshman Carter Henke, of Mountain Home, Idaho, said he was impressed with what Murphy accomplished as one person determined to shine a light on an important cause.

“What I took away from the visit was that she started everything pretty much on her own, from only taking one photography class and then just being self-taught, to build her business,” Henke said.

The students were required to interview Murphy about her writing process for class. In addition to the billboards, Murphy is working on a children’s book, and is executive producer of a short film called “Not Afraid,” which earned the 2024 Indigenous Film and Culture Award from Windrider Film Showcase. The showcase runs in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival.

Executive Director of Student Success Sarah North Wolfe attended Murphy’s presentation.

“It was a privilege to host Jen Murphy on campus,” North Wolfe said. “Our students asked some incredibly insightful questions, and the information that she shared was powerful. It was inspiring to learn from someone who is so passionate about their work.”

Chancellor Les Cook attended, along with his wife, Stephanie.

“Jen’s project has brought much needed awareness to a very sad, and not new, problem,” Stephanie said. “Her passion for her culture and desire for change were displayed through her calm spirit, drive, and the warm way she connects with the families and subjects of her photography. She’s definitely a special soul.”

Chancellor Cook said students were lucky to be able to spend time with Murphy.

“She is doing remarkable work to bring awareness and education to very tragic situations,” he said.